Planting XML in The Enterprise

Agribusinesses helping to create the AgXML standard have learned that getting competitors pulling in the same direction can be a big and difficult task

Agribusinesses helping to create the AgXML standard have learned that getting competitors pulling in the same direction can be a big and difficult task. In some respects, however, its just the tip of a much larger iceberg. Thats because companies such as Cargill Inc. plan to use standards like AgXML not just to build business-to-business lines to outside partners and suppliers but also to integrate internal systems and processes. And that will require process and system overhauls that will ripple across the enterprise.

"Weve discovered over the last couple of years pounding away at XML as a whole that its easy to think through conceptually, but youre talking about potentially huge changes in your business," said Mel Menke, business integration manager for the Cargill North America Grain and Oilseed Crush business unit, in Wayzata, Minn. "Were talking about dealing with a whole new technical arena. Its exciting."

Officials at Cargill said they believe XML will be the perfect technology for linking together currently separate internal processes and systems.

The company, for example, at present runs multiple grain origination transaction systems, applications used to account for the purchase and payment of grain. And John Von Stein, vice president of IT for Cargill North America Grain, said hed like those systems to talk to one another as easily as they will eventually talk to outside entities using the same AgXML standards. That wont be happening any time soon, however. For one thing, Cargill will have to wait for the AgXML standard tags and schemata to be developed.

On the road to such interoperability, Cargill has created its own internal working groups to track standards like AgXML. AgXML group members such as Cheryl Gielau, a senior data analyst, and Michael Dockham, IT architect for Cargill North America Food Ingredients, participate in a Cargill-specific XML peer group that meets on a biweekly basis. There, colleagues from all Cargills divisions, including shipping and finance and accounting, gather to discuss how evolving industry-specific standards will affect the company in the future.

While Cargill has big plans to use AgXML to integrate systems and processes within its food industry supply chain, the company would like to take it a step further. The idea is to use standard XML tags for enterprisewide integration, linking divisions that may even be in different industries. Besides agribusiness, Cargill is involved in the steel and financial industries.

So far, the company is considering the idea of at least reconciling some of the most common types of names and attributes—such as "customer name" and "ship to"—used by its divisions in different industries, Dockham said. From there, the company will build industry-specific vocabularies on top of those common names and XML expressions.

"Ultimately, it would be nice to use the same [schemata] internally and externally and be able to talk with partners and suppliers just as we talk to one another internally," Dockham said. "Thats our overriding goal."

"There are barriers to entry, including the changes well make to our infrastructure and cost," Menke said. "We constantly question ourselves about why we are participating in this. The fact is, to be able to minimize costs makes the effort worthwhile."